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Army of Two hands-on: how Visceral wages war on Gears clones

A cover shooter in which you can obliterate all the cover. Tickled?

There's a beautiful if overpoweringly blunt bit of irony at the heart of Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel, Visceral's first contribution to gaming's quintessential dudebro franchise. On the one hand, it's very obviously a cover shooter, one that blends Gears of War's heavy-footedness with Call of Duty's realworld arsenal and the faintest splash of Splinter Cell: Conviction.

Advancing through a random graveyard, putting down mystifyingly angry youths armed with assault weapons, I find my old COG habits surging back down my forearms. Sniping at minute slivers of exposed head or limb? Check. Rolling away from grenade icons? Check. Escorting a miraculously hardy AI accomplice? Check. Suppressing the perps as Leading Manly Man Alpha while Other Leading Manly Man Bravo stealths up the flank? Check and check. But then the Overkill bar fills up, and the game becomes a whole other kettle of giblets and Semtex.

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Overkill is Visceral's answer to the question: "why in the name of banal rhetorical devices would I want to play yet another bloody cover shooter when there are three perfectly good Gears games doing the rounds and a fourth one coming out this spring?" It throws open a brief window of echoing, orange-lit slow motion in which your bullets explode like rockets, shattering objects and rupturing torsos with every shot. Walls powderise and sparks fly from every surface, as though the world were one giant Catherine wheel. The ability affects both players at once, and the effects are intensified when each partner hits the button simultaneously.

This little trick comes in handy, needless to say, when the punishing spawn patterns and savvy AI catch you out. It's also a spectacular form of catharsis, a means of avenging yourself on a half-decade's worth of iterative shooter design which has seen the concept of locking to an object become almost as widespread and integral as the concept of ironsights. You can run, foul-mouthed, identikit Mexican gangsta stereotypes - oh, how you'll run and run - but you can't hide. Do try to hide, though. I like it when the masonry goes all smoky.

And the beautiful if overpoweringly blunt irony? That would be the part when the red mist clears, the bodies complete their tumble, and you find yourself standing in a level wiped clean of things to hide behind, facing another wave of well-armed goons. The Devil's Cartel is a game that takes refreshing liberties with its own genre, yes. But it also asks you to swallow the consequences, one headshot at a time.

The result is a raw-knuckled, incredibly savage action game that's comparable to Rockstar's Max Payne 3. There's the same, alternately thrilling and frustrating unevenness of challenge, depending on how cleverly you've hoarded the Overkill juice, and how much you've allowed its potency to carry you away. My partner and I got stuck at one point in an area which asked us to crack open a sniper's nest, then hold out against reinforcements. The first time we tackled it, we Overkilled everything to rubble like tiny hooting Godzillas. Then the cavalry arrived and obliterated us.

Blitzing surrounding cover while leaving the central edifice intact proved the safer strategy, and we put up a decent fight on our second go - I wielding a rifle up top while my comrade nursed a shotgun in the trenches. You'll need to look out for each other in The Devil's Cartel, as the game ends when one player dies (team players also get bonus XP, which pays into weapon unlocks). Alas, our split tactics ensured that I was unable to help when my friend took a grenade to the kidneys - and on that depressing note, I was whisked away for an interview.

The new Army of Two is a game of sharp divisions, of huge swings in style and consequence depending on the guns you wield, where you make your stand, and how you deploy that apocalyptic secondary ability. It's a shame the premise isn't as smart as the mechanics - Heavily Armed Yanks Treat Latino Thugs To A Thrashing isn't likely to win any Nobel Prizes, and given the smack-heavy dialogue, Visceral's claim that it hasn't made light of real-world carnage seems rather dubious. Still, if all you're after is over-muscled blasting plus the odd seismic change of tactics, the new Army of Two has you covered.

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